Monday, September 26, 2016

Here's where it hurts

Photo courtesy of Jon/Flicker
So, a couple weeks ago, I turned on the kitchen sink and heard a long ghostly howl coming from somewhere in the house. 

Someone flushed a toilet elsewhere in the house and another long ghostly howl shivered the house. 

Naturally, I headed to Google and found it probably had something to do with air in our pipes. Luckily, we had a plumber coming by to check on the water dripping from our kitchen ceiling, so I figured we could solve the problem then. Only when the plumber came, the pipes stopped howling. 

And then when he left, they started again (they're bashful I suppose.)

The pipes howl when we do laundry or run the dish washer or take a shower or brush our teeth. While not super loud, the howling is distracting. It's not like the white noise of the air conditioner. It's the incessant moan of a medium-sized animal dying a slow, painful death. So anytime the water is running (which, is surprisingly often) it's difficult to concentrate on anything productive.

While visiting York this week, I asked my very handy (former) neighbors for their advice and they, too turned to Google and found detailed instructions for fixing the problem, which involves bleeding the air out of the pipes in a very systematic fashion (it all sounds very violent and medieval, but I'll give it a whirl to be free of the pain-stricken pipe Wookie that's not quite dead yet). 

I bring up my noisy pipes because they offer a really great illustration for my mental state these days, whereby I am myself and the pipes are depression. This near-constant, distracting entity preventing me from fully engaging in life.

Grooooooooan you say (not unlike my pipes). I thought we'd talked that all to death last year. Funny how cyclical life is. 

See, around late spring/early summer, I was feeling pretty good about life. So I thought it might be time to see if I could stop taking my antidepressants. My doctor had suggested I stay on it for a year -- and it had been about a year more or less (OK, maybe a little less ... but not much). And I figured life had settled and I was steady and on we go. Did I talk to my doctor? Of course not. I'd only seen him once before (to get the prescription in fact) and didn't feel much like delving into my mental state one-on-one (I save that sort of stuff for the internet). I felt confident that I would be OK and so I weaned myself off over a month or so. 

And I was OK.

Then we decided to move. 

And that has taken some ... adjusting.

I've struggled with whether it's the move or stopping antidepressants or something else as to why I'm so weighed down lately. I'm not racing to any conclusions, just waiting for the dust to settle here for now.

The other day I was reading the Point After column in a recent Sports Illustrated. 

It featured the story of rower and Paraolympian Blake Haxton who almost died when a flesh-eating disease took  his left leg and most of his right. He endured six weeks of more than 20 operations, his heart stopped and he was on life support, but he survived. 

"He would live, but he was missing most of his legs and neither hand was working. He couldn't sleep and couldn't roll over. Eighteen years into his life, Haxton woke up as an infant," columnist Michael Rosenberg wrote. "Depression could have sunk in. It never did."

Oh. Here we go, I thought to myself as my blood pressure rose. Now this kid is going to look the misery of his situation in its face, stare it down with sheer force of will and mental athleticism. 

But that wasn't what came next. Instead, Blake showed tremendous compassion and understanding of mental health (whether he realized it or not).

"I say that a little reluctantly," he says. "I don't think it was any act of will or violation on my part. I think I just got lucky in terms of chemistry. I don't think I'm prone to [depression]. The last thing I want to say is that I just toughed it out. I really didn't."

My anger about what I thought was going to come next came from an unexpected place. I guess I didn't know how tired of that narrative I am. The one where anyone can overcome depression simply by developing a better attitude. That if I were just strong enough. Just willing enough. If I just tried a little harder, I wouldn't feel this tired and this worn down. If I could focus on gratitude. And the small, beautiful things life leaves at my feet each day.

Because I do see those things. I see the lovely, warm smile my teenaged neighbor offers me when we cross paths. I see the patch of pink and lavender petunias creeping on to the sidewalk when I walk the dog. I see all the children waiting in line for their bus waving at us "Hi Lily! Hi Lily! Hi Lily!" they yell as we walk by -- and Lily with her grin. I see all the texts my siblings send. Checking in to say hi. Checking in to see how I'm doing. Checking in to share a funny photo or anecdote. I see these things and I'm grateful for them, too. 

For me, depression is not the inability to see beauty in the world. It's not the absence of gratitude. 

But sometimes that beauty can be painful. Because of the realization that it might be the only thing propping me up. And I wonder for just how long that thing can stand before it buckles under the weight of me. 

I'm grateful for this life. For my two healthy children and supportive husband and my amazing extended family. I'm grateful for having the opportunity to work from home so that I could stay at home with those two healthy children. I'm grateful for the walk home from Lily's new school – even when the kids whine about how far it is. I'm grateful for the cat door in our rental house that prevents the dog from binging on cat poop. I'm grateful for Wegman's Chocolate Nutty Cone Ice Cream. I'm grateful for sleep.

That's the rub of depression. All these things to be grateful for. Yet still so defeated and being constantly conscious of the fact that your defeat feels unearned somehow. Unwarranted. Unnecessary.

My defeat has not made me less conscious of how awful life can be for others. I'm an exposed nerve, so how can I not watch this video of a Syrian-Finnish man smuggling toys into Aleppo and not be heartbroken by his words:

"We inside Syria have lost our faith in the outside world. We think we are totally deserted. We are not even human. We are bombarded by everybody. We want this war to end. We want these atrocities to end."

We are not even human. 

Or not be affected by the power and beauty and desperation of the words of public theologian and Civil Rights veteran Ruby Sales when she talks about her concern about the spiritual crisis in White America on On Being: 

"I really think that one of the things that we’ve got to deal with is that how is it that we develop a theology or theologies in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter? How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality? And this goes beyond the question of race. What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted because they feel that their lives have no meaning, because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying or they get caught up in the throes of death, whether it’s heroin addiction. 
I don’t hear any theologies speaking to the vast amount — that’s why Donald Trump is essential, because although we don’t agree with him, people think he’s speaking to that pain that they’re feeling. So what is the theologies? I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia, who is dying of a young age, who feels like they’ve been eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Where is the theology that redefines to them what it means to be fully human? I don’t hear any of that coming out of anyplace today. 
And we’ve got a spirit — there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia. I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were."
Or listen to the furious, baffled cry of Rakeyia Scott: "Did you shoot him? Did you shoot him? Did you shoot him?"

Or watch the presidential debate and wonder how on earth we got here. 

I don't mean to elevate my struggle with depression to the levels of all the pain in the world today. Not in the least. But it's a real, human part of me in a world where being human all the sudden seems in jeopardy somehow. As if we're not really seeing each other. We're always looking over the shoulder of each other's pain rather than looking it in the eye. 

So here is my pain. My brain is wired such that some days I wake up and don't want to get out of bed (but I do). And I can't quite tether my brain to my body and be present in my life. And I can't quite find hope that I will ever feel any different than this darkness. I can't quite locate the hope in all the misery (I imagine this is a shared pain). 

Ruby Sales asks the question, "Where does it hurt?" The same question we ask our children when they fall down. It's a question we need to ask each other more, without judgment of the answer. It's a humanizing question. (And in fact, On Being is asking everyone to answer it here).

Moving forward here, I'll attempt to bleed our literal and metaphorical pipes and continue to look for the things to be grateful for. Like that the toilet in the master bathroom has stopped leaking (hell, that I even have a master bathroom! The coveted en suite!) and that we've managed to reduce the population of fruit flies in our kitchen (as it turns out in our house, you can actually catch more flies with vinegar than honey). 

And that there are so many people on this earth willing to listen and to love over all that howling. 


  1. Incredible post. You are brave, and you are strong. Depression is a bitch.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting Katrina and for being so supportive. And I couldn't have put it better depression is the worst.